Kentucky Derby: The Winless 17th Post Position

Kentucky Derby Starting Gate 615 X 400
Photo: Eclipse Spotswire

As April begins to make the turn for home and the first Saturday in May charges down the stretch, the excitement builds for Kentucky Derby 142. In less than a week the trainers, jockeys and owners will gather for the drawing of post positions. Some people will say that the post position isn’t all that important. But for those that have run for the roses from the seventeenth stall in past years, they will tell you that where you break from can make a difference.

In 141 previous derby races, there has been a winner that stands tall and hoists their newly acquired trophy high in the air. But in all those races, never has a horse that wears blanket 17, ended up in the winner’s circle. Since 1930, with the installation of the starting gate, no horse has won from the 17 spot.

There have been horses that have started 18th (Gato del Sol), 19th (I’ll Have Another) and 20th(Big Brown) that have won the Run for the Roses. And then there are those winners that started one stall to the left in number 16 (Animal Kingdom, Monarchos, Charismatic, and Thunder Gulch).  With all the races that have occurred on the first Saturday in May, few horses that have left the cursed gate have even come close to winning.

In 1988, at Kentucky Derby 114, Forty Niner, the 2 year old champion the year prior, provided some thrills that nearly made this story obsolete. A filly by the name of Winning Colors, who was trained by D. Wayne Lukas and ridden by Gary Stevens, had led the entire race. Forty Niner ran just off the pace, the 17 blanket on his back, poised to make his move.  As Winning Colors charged down the stretch toward the wire, Forty Niner and Gary Stevens made their move. In the end he was beaten by a neck, and the streak continued.

In 1995, another D. Wayne Lukas trained horse was able to avoid the curse of the 17 gate by being drawn to break one stall inside. Thunder Gulch would go on to win Kentucky Derby 121, breaking the streak of winless runs from the 16th post.

The luck of D. Wayne Lukas’ would run out in 2014. Coming off a win at the Rebel Stakes, Will Take Charge would break from the same post as Forty Niner had. Going out at 20-1, Will Take Charge never was able to keep up. He was stuck mid pack nearly the entire trip and in the end he finished well behind Derby winner, Orb in the slop of Derby 139.

Year after year, that second place finish of Forty Niner appeared to be the closest that any horse starting from the 17th position would get to tasting victory. That is until Kentucky Derby 140. Commanding Curve, trained by Dallas Stewart, was coming off a third place finish at the Louisiana Derby. After the drawing of starting positions, Dallas Stewart was optimistic of his 50-1 ML horse, stating “It’s great for us. All the speed’s inside.” As the field made its way down the back stretch and into the final turn, all the speed was still in front of Commanding Curve, as he was near the back of the pack. As the field came barreling down the stretch and California Chrome opened up a 5 length lead, Commanding Curve made up ground down the middle of the track. He gave it his all but still fell short to the 2014 Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome.

Last year, at Derby 141, D. Wayne Lukas was once again bit by the winless post curse. This time it was his horse, Mr. Z, which was awarded the unlucky starting spot. After a 9th place finish in the Louisiana Derby and a 3rd at the Arkansas Derby, things appeared to be moving in the right direction for heavily run Mr. Z. But after a decent break and finding himself 7th and on the inside heading into the first turn, Mr. Z never had the strength or endurance to make a run for the roses. He would finish 13th and well off the pace set by the future Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah.

Unfortunately the coach, D. Wayne Lukas, doesn’t have an entry into the Derby this year to try and put an end to the curse once and for all. But there are twenty horses that will be drawn for their starting posts on Wednesday. So who will be the unlucky recipient of the 17th post this year? Or will Kentucky Derby 142 finally be the year that ends the drought? The horse racing world will find out on Saturday. 

~Written by Bryan Giese


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